≡ Menu

Powerful Music

[Photo by Nite773]

Last night at the Barbican I was privileged to hear the world premiere of a new piece by Jonathan Dove called Hojoki. The work is based on an autobiographical story by Kamo no Chomei, a Buddhist monk who lived in the 13th century. Written in 1212, Hojoki tells of his move from Kyoto to escape the constant threat of natural and man-made disasters in the city. In this composition, the story was narrated by a countertenor soloist with the orchestra providing dramatic colour. For me it was extremely moving and the rest of audience seemed to think so as well. But, why does music have the power to access deeper parts of ourselves, to strike at the heart of what it means to be human?

The power of music is a theme taken up by Oliver Sacks, writing a commentary in the neurology journal ‘Brain’. Sacks (2006) explains how Parkinsonian patients, normally subject to a startling range of involuntary movements, can sometimes be stilled by music. Similarly, sufferers from Tourette’s syndrome, through music, can be temporarily relieved from their tics. Even those with advanced dementia, whose ability to experience strong emotions appears to have been eroded, are sometimes transported by familiar songs.

Not only can music release some patients from their motor or cognitive dysfunction, but, for others, music is almost too powerful. Those with ‘Williams Syndrome‘ appear hypersensitive to the emotional impact of music. Sacks (2006) describes witnessing a group of young people with the syndrome crying uncontrollably to sad music.

The reactions of those with Williams Syndrome hints at the darker side of our special sensitivity to music. Sacks (2006) describes how musical hallucinations affect at least 2% of the population with some reporting songs looping in their heads. A few seem to be having the real experience of hearing music, which can initiate a fruitless search for the hidden source. At the most extreme, for some with epilepsy, music can even cause seizures, especially when its content has particularly rich emotional connections for the hearer.

To Sacks these findings suggest a special role for music in the brain:

“Our auditory systems, our nervous systems, are tuned for music. Perhaps we are a musical species no less than a linguistic one. But there seems to be in us a peculiar sensitivity to music, a sensitivity that can all too easily slip out of control, become excessive, become a susceptibility or a vulnerability. Too-muchness lies continually in wait, whether this takes the form of ‘earworms’, musical hallucinations, swoons and trances, or music-induced seizures. This is the other side of the otherwise wonderful power of music.” (Sacks, 2006:2532)


Music has been a hot topic in the psyblog-o-sphere over the last few weeks. I found Sack’s article through Brainethics.

Sacks, O. (2006) The power of music. Brain, 129, 2528-2532. (Abstract)



A new psych study by email every day. No spam, ever.